As we have throughout the last several years, WFNY will use the last two weeks of December to discuss the most important stories of the last twelve months. Stay with us as we count down the biggest and most discussed topics of 2016. Our “Best of 2016” continues on with The Boys of Summer—and Autumn.
If I had told you in April of 2016 that the Cleveland Indians were going to win the A.L. Central, but get virtually nothing in the playoffs from starters Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, never get a start longer than 4 2/3 innings from Trevor Bauer, and only get four playoff at bats combined from starting catcher Yan Gomes and starting left fielder Michael Brantley, you no doubt would have predicted an early and swift exit for the Indians.
From an outsiders’ perspective, when all of the above came to fruition as the Major League Playoffs playoffs started, pundits and odds makers had the Indians flaming out to the big market Boston Red Sox in the ALCS. Without the team’s vaunted starting rotation intact, there was no way the Indians would be able to overcome the Red Sox offense.
This was a story that seemed to play out in the early months of the season. While the Indians ultimately almost won the World Series, the season, on paper, was far from simple.
When spring training opened prior to the season, one of the only sure things that the Indians had going for it was that starting rotation. Team President Chris Antonetti had been lauded for landing long-term, team-friendly deals for both Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco prior to the 2015 season. Concurrently, the Indians were busy developing youngsters Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer and Cody Anderson, and had signed scrappy Josh Tomlin to a two-year deal just in case. When the season opened, this team appeared to have unlimited rotational depth.
Famous last words.
Offensively, this was a team chalk full of question marks, especially on offense. I’ve already mentioned Brantley, but past Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor, there wasn’t much else for manager Terry Francona to hang his hat on. Yan Gomes was coming off his worst season offensively. Mike Napoli was signed, but had put up a season that looked more like Nick Swisher during his Indians’ tenure. And most had written Jose Ramirez off as a utility player.
The outfield was an absolute mess, with the combination of Brantley’s status unknown, and Abraham Almonte suspended for 80 games for PEDs, eliminating him from the playoff roster. Hell, the anchor for the outfield was Lonnie Chisenhall, whose erratic offense and poor infield defense had bounced him to right field in August of 2015 for the very first time. While he looked phenomenal defensively as the season closed that year, his body of work in the outfield was barely more than a month. Did I mention that he started the year injured, and wouldn’t debut until April 20, the 12th game of the season?
Ponder this: the Indians opening day outfield was Rajai Davis in center, Marlon Byrd in left, and Collin Cowgill in right. Tyler Naquin ultimately replaced Cowgill as a pinch runner, then stayed in center, moving Davis to left, and Byrd to right.
You forgot about those two, didn’t you? Davis, Byrd, Cowgill and Naquin…how many had that outfield penned in at the start of 2016?
There were even questions in the bullpen. The pen was solid, just not spectacular. In Cody Allen, the Indians had one of the best and most consistent closers in all of baseball. Bryan Shaw, while maligned by some, had been as consistent a set-up man as any in baseball. But there were questions abound past those two, unless you were on board the (Jeff) Manship, or thought Joba Chamberlain or Zach McAllister were going to be consistent in the back-end of the pen should anyone falter. The bullpen unit always seemed to be lacking something, which is what happens when the front office tends to locate scrap-heap pitchers to throw on the kindling.
While many still pointed to the 2015 World Series Champion Kansas City Royals as the team to beat, the Indians still had that tantalizing rotation and one of the best closers in baseball. In Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor, the Indians had one of the best core offenses in the game. While Lindor had questions as he was about to enter his first full big league season, every member of the organization who had watched him develop over the years knew he was the real deal.
But a lot had to go right for this team to take the next step—and it did.
The team first hopped into first place for a day on May 28, then quickly fell as far down as third place in the coming week. Then the Indians swept the Royals in a four-game set in early June, and grabbed ahold of first place on June 4, and would not relinquish it for the rest of the season.
The biggest surprise of the season came at the trade deadline when the Indians tried to address two of their biggest needs at the time: The bullpen and catcher. They acquired the best reliever on the market in Andrew Miller, giving the New York Yankees their top prospect in Clint Frazier, and went after the best hitter on the market in catcher Jonathan Lucroy. Gomes was injured and likely out for the rest of the year, and Roberto Perez had struggled since coming off the disabled list. While the Lucroy deal infamously didn’t happen, it was clear that the Indians were ready to contend.
With the rotation fully intact, and a bullpen anchored by two of the top ten relievers in all of baseball, it was clear that the front office and Francona were banking on their arms.
The first worry came after Salazar’s first start in August, when he came out of the game after getting shelled in two innings pitched. He went on the DL the next day with right elbow inflammation. He returned after his DL stint, but on September 9, was essentially shut down with tightness in his right forearm.
A week later, it appeared as though the Indians legit World Series chances went down the drain when the Tigers Ian Kinsler hit a line drive off Carrasco’s hand on the game’s second pitch. It turned out that Carrasco had a nondisplaced fracture of the fifth metacarpal on his pitching hand, and was done for the year. By mid-to-late September, two-thirds of the Indians playoff rotation was done, meaning Corey Kluber would be holding down the fort with a ragtag group of starters behind him.
While Antonetti and Chernoff brought Miller in to lock down the bullpen after the elite rotation got them to the sixth inning, it now looked like the elite rotation was Kluber, some bubble gum and some duct tape.
And Cody Allen.
And Andrew Miller.
Of course, the offense had been better than advertised. Jose Ramirez became #JRam, and Fracisco Lindor had become a legit MVP candidate. Carlos Carrasco and Mike Napoli hit more than 30 homers each, and Tyler Naquin had been in the rookie of the year conversation all year long. Roberto Perez finally found his bat and continued to be one of the best defenders in baseball, and Jason Kipnis was the rock throughout the year. It was a team that could put up runs in a whole lot of different ways, and they had to to get to the series.
The playoff run was scintillating. Against Boston, the Indians swept the Red Sox behind solid offensive anchors, Corey Kluber, and a Miller-led bullpen. JRam hit .500, and Kipnis .364. But the series belonged to Kluber, Josh Tomlin and the pen. Kluber started his playoff excellence with seven innings of three-hit baseball, while Josh Tomlin went five innings, giving up only two runs on four hits. The real story of the series though was Andrew Miller, who kicked off ten straight multi-inning appearances.
Against the Blue Jays, the Indians dominated again, winning the series 4-1, while only falling behind in their Game 4 loss. The Indians struggled offensively in this series, hitting only .168, but quite literally rode the arms of unsuspecting pitchers. The hallmark game was in Game 3, in which Trevor Bauer could only make 21 pitches, and only faced four batters because of his now infamous drone injury. Incredulously, the Indians rode the arms of Dan Otero (one run in 1 1/3 innings), Jeff Manship (1 1/3 of one hit ball), Zach McAllister (one run in one inning), Bryan Shaw (the winner, giving up two hits in 1 2/3 innings), Cody Allen (1 2/3 of no-hit ball), and Andrew Miller (he got the save, 1 1/3 innings of one-hit ball), and won the game 4-2, giving them a commanding 3-0 series lead. After Kluber lost game three, unheralded rookie lefty Ryan Merrit pitched 4 1/3 innings of two-hit baseball, was was then anchored by Shaw (vultured another win), Miller’s 2 2/3 innings, and Cody Allen closed the door, and the series.
The World Series turned into something incredibly special. The first four games were all about Corey Kluber and Andrew Miller for the Indians, and Jake Arrieta for the Cubs. Sure, there was Roberto Perez fun in game one, and the Indians were busy trying to deal with Kyle Schwarber, but when Kluber won game four for his second win of the series, putting the Indians up 3-1 in the series, it appeared as though the favored Cubs were going to continue their long-standing Series drought.
But as these things tend to play out, of course it would come down to a Game 7, and while Kluber was going for his third win of the series, he wouldn’t play a part in the game, in the end. The Indians found themselves down 6-3, after a retiring David Ross hit a solo shot off of Andrew Miller in the sixth. But in the eighth, it got fun again. JRam singled with two-outs, and then the unsung Brandon Guyer doubled him home, in Aroldis Chapman’s first batter of the inning.
With the Indians down two runs, up walked Rajai Davis, who had struggled throughout the playoffs. I didn’t mention him up to this point for a reason. When he launched a 2-2 fastball to deep left field, there was a brief moment of utter and complete silence. How could Rajai Davis, that guy the Indians signed to be the fourth outfielder, and was in the midst of a massive playoff slump, how could he be the guy to tie this ballgame?
As the ball cleared the wall, everything seemed possible.
After a scoreless ninth, and a 17-minute rain delay, the Cubs jumped on a struggling Bryan Shaw, who had pitched the ninth, and came back out in the tenth, even with the delay. With the score 8-6, Rajai Davis hit a run-scoring single, but that brought up Michael Martinez, who grounded out weakly to end the series, and the Indians’ run.
In the end, this Indians team had literally done the impossible. They only had the services of their best hitter for 11 games. They lost their starting catcher after the break, and he’d been struggling for more than a year prior. The outfield was limping into the playoffs, and Mike Napoli hadn’t truly been effective since June.
Yet, there the Indians were, standing one big hit away from a World Championship, seemingly riding the tidal wave started by the Cleveland Cavaliers months before them. And while this Indians’ team didn’t win the World Series, this somehow seemed like the start, and not the finish.
No, they didn’t win the Series, but for a team that seemingly had a mountain placed in front of them every other week, almost winning the World Series almost seemed like a vindication of a talent base that a lot of “experts” didn’t believe in in April, and still didn’t believe in October. But in the end, the 2016 World Series turned out to be a national wake-up call to a team that will likely be World Series contenders, if not Champions, for years to come.